For years, subsidies have been withheld from poorest Eastern Cape schools

Schools now set to receive missing R872.5-million

By Rod Amner

2 May 2023

Eastern Cape schools have for years been paid less than the allotted amount per learner. Graphic: Lisa Nelson

The poorest schools in the Eastern Cape are to receive an additional R872.5-million in learner subsidies after the Legal Resources Centre in Makhanda discovered they were being underfunded, and threatened the Eastern Cape Department of Education (ECDOE) with legal action.

Following tip-offs from some school principals, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) found that no-fee schools were receiving less than half the funding they were supposed to get from the provincial department.

The no-fee schools were entitled to receive a R1,602 subsidy per learner this financial year according to the National Norms and Standards set by the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga.

Instead, the Eastern Cape Department of Education (ECDOE) budgeted a meagre 38% of the full subsidy, amounting to R608 per learner – R994 less per learner than they should receive.

In May last year, the LRC began asking questions about the budget cuts, but repeated correspondence to the ECDOE went answered.

LRC lawyer Cecile van Schalkwyk said the LRC then embarked on a nationwide road trip, visiting 95 urban and rural schools in all nine provinces. They discovered that the national per-learner budget targets were not being met in KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and, especially, the Eastern Cape.

Alarmingly, none of the principals interviewed in the three under-funded provinces – apart from those in Makhanda – were aware of the R1,602 per learner subsidy set by Minister Motshekga, said van Schalkwyk.

She said when the 2023/2024 budgets were announced in November last year, the LRC decided on legal action.

Acting on the instructions of the Makhanda Circle of Unity and three Makhanda schools, the LRC advised the ECDOE that reducing the budgets violated learners’ rights to education, human dignity and equality, and discriminated against children in the province.

Yet in January, the ECDOE sent a memorandum to schools advising them the budget cuts were being implemented due to financial constraints.

The ECDOE then made an about-turn. At a principals’ meeting in Gqeberha on 3 April, the department announced that revised budgets would be sent to schools. This decision was confirmed on 21 April by the ECDOE and it was announced that an additional R872.5 million had been made available.

The first tranche of money for 2023/24 is due in school bank accounts by the last week of May. However, the ECDOE has already failed to keep a promise to distribute revised budgets to schools in the week of 24-28 April, making it difficult for schools to plan.

Discriminatory funding

Van Schalkwyk said the ECDOE’s decision would relieve the schools’ immediate needs, but she was concerned the “framing of the Norms and Standards for School Funding remains problematic”.

She said the norms allowed provincial education departments to deviate from the target set by the minister, “creating an unequal and discriminatory funding model, where some provinces fund below the target amount”.

This deviation had led to the Eastern Cape having below-target funding for the past three years, and there was no guarantee budgets wouldn’t be cut again in the future.

“The reality is that the norms are unconstitutional in their current form, and the LRC will continue to explore ways to challenge the provisions that allowed for the deviation from the target in the first place.”

No comment from the ECDOE

Last week, ECDOE spokesperson Mali Mtima was unreachable by phone, voicemail, or WhatsApp.

It is unclear why the ECDOE allocated just 38% of the school funding targets set by the national government for 2023/24, where the money intended for school budgets went, or how the ECDOC was able to find R872.5-million to plug the shortfall.

Since 2020, schools in the Eastern Cape have been funded well below the national per-learner target. In 2020, schools were advised they would receive 78% of their budgets due to the Covid-19 pandemic. School budgets were also slashed during the 2021/2022, 2022/2023, and 2023/24 financial years.

Financial burden on parents and teachers

Boniwe Tyota, a former chairperson of the school governing body of Tantyi Primary School in Makhanda, said the revised budget would mean the school would receive approximately R174,000 more for the 2023/2024 financial year.

Tyota said the school had been relying on extra funds from parents to keep going. However, Tantyi Primary principal Priscilla Glover said they would not celebrate “until the correct money is actually in our accounts”.

In addition, said Glover, much of the money allocated to each school - for learner support materials such as textbooks, stationery, workbooks and municipal accounts - is controlled centrally by the ECDOE and does not arrive in the school’s bank account.

She said celebrations were also muted because the per-learner budget allocation “is already pretty darn tight even when it is the correct amount”.

“Certain costs of running a school have not been factored in – for example, the cost of the compulsory annual auditor fee of about R5,000,” said Glover. “The nationally-set budgets for schools have not kept pace with inflation in the last decade.”

She said she and her staff had bought things for the school - pens, paper, plastic to cover textbooks, padlocks, door handles, and cleaning products. Meanwhile, parents were asked to provide one ream of photocopy paper and three rolls of toilet paper.

“Only some families can do that, but each donation counted.”

Budget disarray

Ntsika Secondary School’s School Governing Body chairperson Xolisile Tyotha said thanks to the LRC’s efforts the school’s budget would be more than doubled, from R503,339 to an estimated R1,3-million.

Xolisile said it was difficult to plan effectively when budget decisions are taken this way.

“We are now already a month into the 2023/2024 financial year, and we have had to complete our financial planning. Now we are told we will receive new budgets. While we are happy for more money, it disrupts our planning and budgeting. The ECDOE should have issued us with the correct budgets in the first place, and not only when we started putting legal pressure on them,” he said.

Recently-retired Ntsika principal Madeleine Schoeman said since 2020 her school “tried many avenues unsuccessfully” to fight for their school budgets before turning to the LRC.

“How provincial officials expected schools to sit back and accept the inequity of the paper budget of 2023/4 is beyond my understanding,” said Schoeman.